COMMENTARY: At Homeless Shelter, It’s About Grace, Not Romance

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(Tom Ehrich is a writer and computer consultant, managing large-scale database implementations. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C.)

(UNDATED) Abdul walks with my son and me to the TNT Market to buy sugar for the lemonade.

“I am a cook,” he says. A large, full-bearded man wearing black slacks and a white T-shirt, he works through a temporary agency.

“It was a fire,” he says, that destroyed the home he and his wife were renting and drove them to the homeless shelter.

The bag of sugar costs $4.23. I am $1 short. Abdul has nothing. My son’s pockets are empty. The store owner shakes his head when I extend an ATM card.

“We only accept food stamps,” he says. But in a moment of grace, he agrees to let Abdul bring the $1 back.

Men stand aside to let women go through the serving line first. One young woman takes a second tray for her mother, who is too crippled to stand in line. Another woman, who dresses and carries herself like a young professional, brings her son to the line. My wife has made macaroni and cheese for the kids. But this boy of about 8 says he’d just as soon have green beans.

“Your mama is raising you right,” I tell him. She looks me in the eye and says, “Thank you.”

The first men in line seem to be longtime residents who know the system and have their possessions arranged neatly on nearby bunk beds. We chat about stock-car racing, basketball and Army duty.

In the manner of once-a-month volunteers who will sleep this night in softer beds, I try for a human connection, to affirm their humanity, perhaps also to think of myself as doing something more than doling out food with my Sunday school friends.

Maybe we connect. Maybe joshing with the server is one of the prices they pay for a free meal.

The last men in line are late arrivals. One can barely pronounce a word. Another looks wired. Shelter veterans steer them gently through the line. This is a quiet place. No one wants a ruckus. It’s cold outside.

I don’t want to romanticize my three hours in a homeless shelter or those men, women and children who live there. There is nothing romantic about homelessness.

There is grace in the patient way they treat each other. There is grace in Abdul’s escorting me down a dangerous street. There is grace in the care with which a volunteer slices cherries for the fruit salad. There is grace in the thousands of small donations that make this a clean and safe place.

But there is nothing romantic here. Nor was there anything romantic about a 14-year-old homeless girl giving birth to an illegitimate child in a stable, her only companion a young man who probably was protective but not much help.

We have tried to romanticize that scene in Bethlehem. We have made it a source of cheerful images _ images so potent that they endure defilement by commerce and serve, ironically, to express the joy of family.

Then we are on to New Year’s Eve and end-of-year financials so fast that we usually miss the aftermath: strangers from afar coming to see the baby, in a foreshadowing of rejection by his own people; the homeless family’s being driven into exile in Egypt; and Herod’s slaughter of innocent children to root out the one child.

What can it feel like to stand with your child at a serving line in a homeless shelter, as you try for a shred of dignity and hope your child isn’t hurt here? What can it feel like for the child to spend the nights of Christmas on a cot surrounded by strangers?

What could it feel like for Joseph to watch his betrothed suffer in a stable? What could it feel like for Mary to bring life into such a meager world? What could it feel like, as birth-wounds were still healing, to be warned of danger?

God is not a painter who daubs sweetness over such agony and produces inspiring scenes worthy of framing. God is standing in line with her son. God is edging forward with his mother. God is among his beloved, sharing their cots and straw.


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